Sometime, at least in theory, baseball will be played in 2022. The labor dispute that shut down MLB on December 2 will eventually end, and the 2021 World Series champion Atlanta Braves will start playing baseball again. And whenever that happens, there’s a problem of reasonable size in midfield that Alex Anthopoulos and company need to figure out.
Even as someone who follows this sport closer than probably 99.999% of the world, I can confidently say I have no idea who will occupy the midfield for the Worlds in 2022. And I don’t think they know either. And the more you try to figure it out, the more complicated it gets.
The best starting point for such questions are the internal candidates. Trades and free agent signings are almost always less likely than someone already filling the role in the organization. For 2022 I see four possible internal candidates to join CF.
The logical name at the top of the list is the guy who started at CF on opening day last year. Cristian Pache is one of the best candidates in the Braves system, a pure midfielder, and likely tops the list of guys with the best chance of being out there when baseball resumes. The problem, frankly, is that it stunk last year. In 68 plate appearances in the majors over the last year, Pache really struggled against pitching at a high level, hitting out nearly 40% of the time and posting a -8 wRC+. Yes, that says minus eight. That’s pitcher-level production from one of your starting players at eight positions, and he was promptly demoted back to AAA.
Pache certainly played better at Gwinnett than he did at Atlanta, but it still wasn’t overly impressive. In 363 plate appearances he hit 11 HRs and scored a 100 wRC+, but that was still with a nearly 30% strikeout rate and a .350 BABIP. No numbers screaming for promotion. The Athletic’s Keith Law has consistently been one of Pache’s strongest supporters, pretty much always ranking him higher than any other public ranking. In his just-released 2022 issue, he wrote that Pache likely needs another 300-400 minor league at-bats before he’s ready and the numbers don’t add up. And considering he’s probably the number one CF candidate at this point, you can start to see why that’s a bit of an issue.
The next option is Ronald Acuña Jr. The best player in the Braves roster, Acuña is more than capable of playing at a high level in midfield. That’s one of the reasons he’s the best player in the squad. The problem is that Acuña picked up a serious knee injury that ended his 2021 season. While everything we’ve seen since has shown Acuña destroying his rehab, the general belief is that the Braves will take it easy to bring Ronald back as they should. Which makes it difficult to see them throw him into the most physically challenging position in the game immediately after his return from a cruciate ligament rupture. It’s also not even a guarantee that Acuña will be out there on opening day, assuming opening day is where it’s supposed to be. Acuña is perfectly healthy and the best choice, especially when Pache is still trying to find his way. But after such a serious injury and rehab, it’s a lot less clear.
Then there’s Guillermo Heredia, who was at the center after Acuña’s injury last year and before Anthopoulos had a chance to call for reinforcements. Heredia has done as good a job as anyone could have expected given the circumstances over the past year, really helping to bridge the gap with its after-hours acquisitions. It’s important to note that he is absolutely not a starting caliber player and should always be considered first as a substitute, but can step in in a pinch. The more he’s played over the past year, the more he’s been exposed, and limiting his at-bats is certainly the preferred route. But if the Braves don’t find a full-time solution for 2022, you can count on Heredia to be part of the group of players they will try to piece together the midfield with until a full-time solution can be found.
The last internal candidate is Adam Duvall. It was Duvall who roamed the midfield during most of the Braves’ historic run through last season’s playoffs. He’s a really good corner outfielder by all accounts, with a surprising amount of speed and athleticism for a man his size and someone who won’t kill you in short runs in midfield. Short distances are of course the key. It’s hard to imagine the Braves handing arguably their most important defensive position on a full-time basis to a 33-year-old cornerback. Duvall makes a lot more sense as a guy spelling out the full-time midfielder with point starts here and there than he does as a full-time midfielder himself. And that’s the crux of the problem for Atlanta. They have internal guys who can play centers. But for all there is an equal, if not stronger, argument why they shouldn’t be considered starters in 2022. At least not immediately.
So without a clear internal option, there’s a good chance the Braves will have to leave the organization to resolve this issue. With Anthopoulos, it’s always wiser to start with the free agent market than the trade market just because he trades so infrequently. Especially large trades. The problem is, this may be the worst free-agent class of midfielder in the sport’s history. The two top guys, Starling Marte and Chris Taylor are already off the board and they weren’t exactly the top 2 in the world to begin with. And the list after that is, well, rough. In the open market, names like Brett Gardner and Kevin Pillar remain. Or Odubel Herrera and Billy Hamilton. And these are the best guys there are. Believe it or not, things only get worse after them.
I reckon Anthopoulos could sign one of these guys dirt cheap just to have another option available, but there isn’t a name on this list that’s significantly better than Heredia or Duvall at this point. While signing a free agent likely fits what the Braves love to do best, this midfield class might make that impossible.
Of the three choices, internal options, the free agent market, or the trade market, the distant trade market has the most appealing names. A couple of names, Cedric Mullins and Bryan Reynolds, lead an interesting group of ways the Braves could trade to fill their current vacancy.
Mullins is 27, coming off a monster 2021 season, and won’t be a free agent until 2026, assuming the new CBA doesn’t change that. In 160 games last year for Baltimore, he averaged 30 HRs, 30 steals, and 136 wRC+, which all added up to nearly a 6-win season. He’s also left-handed, which would help given how right-handed Atlanta’s offense is right now, especially without Freddie Freeman. The catch, of course, is that it would be incredibly expensive to trade for him. Baltimore would need several top prospects from Atlanta, and rightly so given the talent and years of scrutiny. Braves probably have the players to lure the Orioles into trading their star CF, but it’s the kind of trade we haven’t seen in his time at Atlanta. If the Braves are willing to pay the price, Mullins makes all the sense in the world.
Reynolds is basically in the same boat as Mullins. A 27-year-old star midfielder on a terrible team who isn’t a free agent until 2026. Last year, Reynolds scored a 142 wRC+ with an OBP of .390 and 24 hours for the Pirates. Reynolds is a switch hitter, which in turn helps balance Atlanta’s current lineup. He’s also done a great job over his 3-year career, consistently lowering his strikeout rate while increasing his walk rate, showing true plate discipline. Reynolds, like Mullins, would be insanely expensive to buy. The Braves were reportedly interested at the close and made a “big” offer. The pirates obviously said no, claiming they had to be overpowered to trade such a talented guy, which again is fair. And again, like Mullins, if the Braves are willing to pay the price, Reynolds would be an excellent fit.
There are other trading opportunities as well. The Rays and A’s always trade major league pieces and both have midfielders that could make sense for Atlanta. The Cubs are clearly rebuilding and may not have a use for Ian Happ. others too. The question always arises, would Anthopoulos finally be ready to part with high-ranking prospects in a trade? We won’t know until we know.
The Braves midfield situation is probably best summed up as a plethora of opportunities but no clear choice. The Freddie Freeman saga grabs all the headlines, but what Atlanta is doing in the middle next year is probably the next big question. And it may require the Braves to venture into the trade market in a way they haven’t in a long time. Who do you think should be the starting CF in 2022?